The expansion of the General Motors of Canada Ltd. engineering centre in Oshawa, Ont., is a sign that the auto maker is serious about continuing to make cars in Oshawa for the long haul, both the company's president and the Ontario minister responsible for the auto sector say.
"To put in place this kind of capability and make this kind of commitment isn't something you would do with a short-term agenda in mind," GM Canada president Stephen Carlisle said Tuesday when asked about whether the company plans to continue assembling vehicles in Oshawa.
Mr. Carlisle reiterated that there has been no decision made to allocate new vehicles to Oshawa and that one won't be made until late next year after the completion of contract talks with Unifor, which represents workers at the two Oshawa assembly plants, an engine and transmission factory in St. Catharines, Ont., and other General Motors Co. plants in Ontario.
A key issue is costs, he has said, and where the Oshawa plants rank amid a constant examination by General Motors Co. of its factories.
"It's a whole package," he said Tuesday. "It involves Unifor and labour, but there's a series of issues we have to work our way through: energy, infrastructure."
Ontario Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid also interpreted the announcement of an increase in the engineering staff at the centre by 50 per cent and its designation as an innovation hub for connected vehicles as a positive sign for the manufacturing side of the company's business.
"I think if GM had no intention of being here in the future we wouldn't see this investment here," Mr. Duguid told a handful of reporters in Oshawa after the GM Canada announcement.
"I'm very confident that GM sees a future themselves here in Oshawa," he said. "My no. 1 priority is to land that elusive [new product] mandate for Oshawa in the coming months."
Mr. Carlisle acknowledged in January that no new products have been allocated for GM's two assembly plants in Oshawa when the current vehicles are shifted to other plants or are replaced.
That process of production falling at the Oshawa plants begins later this year with the shift of the Chevrolet Camaro sports car to a GM factory in Lansing, Mich.
Union officials have said that move is likely to reduce employment at what the company calls its "flex plant" in Oshawa by as many as 1,000 people or one shift.
The neighbouring consolidated plant is scheduled to close in 2016.
At the Canadian Engineering Centre, the company said Tuesday it will hire 100 software and controls engineers to develop new connected vehicle and green technologies. The centre employs about 200 engineers now.
Along with suppliers and universities, GM Canada manages about $190-million of research and development work annually.
"This is really what advanced manufacturing and high value added work is about in our sector," Mr. Carlisle told a gathering of university officials, supplier representatives and engineering students. "It's about the commercialization of R and D done in Canada."
Fully autonomous vehicles could be on the road within five to 10 years, he said, but technologies that make vehicles more autonomous are in use now.
Auto makers are spending billions of dollars to develop self-driving vehicles and to come up with new components and new manufacturing processes to reduce the weight of vehicles to meet government mandates for improved fuel economy and reduced vehicle emissions.
GM Canada said in 2012 that it would spend $750-million on research and development in Canada through 2017 as a part of the commitments it made to the federal and Ontario governments when they contributed $10.8-billion to the bailout of its parent company when it entered chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009.